You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock And The Mwandishi Band – Bob Gluck (University of Chicago Press/ Footprint Books)


For me, the thought of a book dedicated to Herbie Hancock’ Mwandishi band, I needed to pinch myself. Who would have thought? But my God does it make sense that some one has. And that someone is Bob Gluck, pianist himself, and a jazz historian. For this book he offers the first comprehensive study of this seminal group, mapping the musical, technological, political, and cultural changes that they not only lived in but also effected. And the beauty of this book is that Gluck is able uncover many of the ingredients that would come to form the Mwandishi sound, offering a vast array of interviews with not only Herbie, but the Mwandishi bands many members.

Herbie Hancock is a classically trained pianist, and regarded by many as one of the greats. He grew up in Chicago, and by the age of six he took up piano lessons. Already at this early stage people knew he was going to be great. Over time he developed his compositional skills too, becoming one of the foremost composers in modern jazz. When an opportunity came for him to play with the late great Miles Davis he grabbed it with both hands, being part of Miles second great quintet between 1963 and 1968. The music was cooking, but ultimately Herbie wasn’t satisfied. He wanted something different. So depending on who you speak to, Herbie was either dismissed or he went on his own accord.

This book is based around the Mwandishi band, and the period between 1970-1974. “Mwandishi”, a Swahili name, would become something that Herbie would use as building a block to frame both his immediate music, but ultimately the work that he would continue throughout rest of his career. During this period he put out three albums, 1970′ Mwandishi, 1972′ s Crossings, and 1973’s Sextant. Gluck focuses heavily on these recordings looking at their pre and postproduction, and also discusses the response the band received when they went out on tour.

Things started to change for Herbie when he did the soundtrack to Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up, in which he began to dabble in strange, more avant-garde styles of jazz. To some extent there are some similarities to what his mate Tony Williams was doing in Tony Williams Lifetime, suggesting perhaps that something was in the air. In 1969 Herbie’s sextet released Kawaida. Herbie knew that something unusual was unfolding. Something spiritual, something that affirmed a shared black identity that went back to the motherland of Africa. The band members assumed Swahili names.

The book talks vividly about that first recording, which was simply titled Mwandishi. It was recorded at the end of 1970, and Gluck describes how the sessions took place at a young visionary Wally Heider’ studio in San Francisco. Many great names had recorded there in the past including Jefferson Aeroplane, Grateful Dead, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young for their Déjà Vu album. David Rubinsons production process combined both old and techniques. Postproduction included the addition of effects, but only very rarely did they indulge in tape edits. Rubinson wanted to maintain the integrity of the original recorded performances, enhancing their direction with plenty of electronics. As a listener, the opening track Ostinato: Suite for Angela starts as a basic groove that has plenty of electronic flourishes and brass runs. The repetitive phrase (Ostinato means repeating phrase) is heavily influenced by blues and R&B, similar to Herbie’ previous album, Fat Albert Rotunda. The song is also based on the early French electronic music concept of a “locked groove”.

Gluck talks about the various time signatures, which allowed for different degrees of tension and release. The perception of shifting in and out of sync during these collective improvisational time changes, serves to heighten this effect. The book gives great insight into the ups and downs of this first track, as well as an actual musical layout of various passages and patterns from this song

You’ll Know When You Get There, the album’ lushest and hypnotic track, takes the listener to the outer regions of free form jazz. Whilst reading this dynamic book I thought it reasonable to accompany it by listening to all of the Mwandishi bands music, and it assisted greatly in gelling Gluck’ theory and historical revelations to my own personal experience of Herbie’ incredible music. Gluck even has a graphic scoring of the acoustic/electronic layering on Water Torture, off Crossings. The remarkable arrangements create the most bizarre pictoral layout for the sheet music you could imagine, and that’s only the first one minute thirty-five. Also in the book are great photos of the band on tour between 1970 -1974. And even a rare shot of the band on their reunion performance at the Newport jazz festival in 1976.

One thing I found really interesting was the quadraphonic sound system that they applied on their final album, Sextant. By this time the band had moved from acoustic to electric and now electronic. This was, due to Herbie purchasing a raft of serious sound equipment, with the band assembling their own equipment to their own liking. During this period they had introduced Patrick Gleeson on synthesizer to the band. Gluck goes into great depths about the influences that Gleeson brought to the band on Crossings and Sextant, providing examples of his contributions via written musical diagrams.

The Mwandishi band may have functioned as a musical collective, but in crucial ways it was always Herbie Hancock’ band. Herbie was the master composer and his band members were his instruments.

The last part of the book talks about life on the road from 1971-1974, and the critical response to their new sounds. The jazz press were typically mixed as they tend to be when taken out of their comfort zone, but the more astute identified that Herbie had the most dynamic and stimulating group playing at the time. Individually, each of the six men were at the very top of their respective games. And by the end of 1973 the group’ shows were growing in intensity and depth. It was crystallising.

Overall the Mwandishi band demonstrated that it was possible to create music with a strong rhythmic element that simultaneously treated timbre as a primary musical factor. Gluck concludes that they did so in a manner that straddled the line between a post bop sensibility and the avant-garde, a place where acoustic, electric, and electronic sounds could inhabit the same musical plane, and in doing so, broadening the sonic palette for each of those elements.

The final conclusion for Gluck was that the unique wonder of the Mwandishi band was that it was perceived by both its members and the more informed of its listeners as a deeply collective experience, albeit with a singular creative force, the great Herbie Hancock!

Dean Seabrook


About Author

Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.